Prague Jewish Quarter – Fifth District
I’ve spent many interesting hours browsing the Prague Jewish Quarter. Don’t expect delicatessens and milliners on the street corners. Although the area does contain a small Jewish community it must be considered as an “Historical” Jewish area.
It’s easier to understand the area of the Prague Jewish Quarter if we refer to it by its district name i.e. the fifth district of Prague called Josefov. The map shows that the Prague Jewish Quarter outlined in red, is located entirely within Stare Město (Old Town). It didn’t used to be like that. Before 1850 anything to the left of the long red line was either just river, riverworks or nitrate beds. Riverside land reclamation starts in the 1870s and the building demolition starts in the mid-1890’s. The rebuild of the area begins around 1902 from which point it starts to look like it does today.
Is it Prague Jewish Quarter or Jewish Ghetto?
There had been a Jewish community in Prague since the establishment of Prague Castle in the late 9th Century. What we call the New Town and the Prague 3 Zizkov areas both had thriving communities. In 1437 Emperor Albert (Habsburg) defined an area of approximately 90,000 square metres on the bend in the river and declared this area to be the only place where Jewish people could reside. The quality of the land and buildings was no better or worse than much of the surrounding area so if it were purely based on conditions you’d have to call the Old Town a ghetto as well. The word ghetto was only used to refer to a designated area which was separated from the normal day-to-day rules and regulations of the city.
The fortunes of the Prague Jewish Quarter rose and fell depending on the King, Queen or Emperor of the day (Ferdinand I and Maria Theresa persecuted them, Josef II and Rudolf II supported them). In 1580 the community had been recognised and given permission to build their own “Jewish Town Hall” (unusual as they did not have “Town” status). In 1848 a following a rebellion against the Imperial forces in Prague, the Emperor Ferdinand V abdicated meaning that his nephew became Emperor Franz Josef I. It was he who then declared that the Jewish Ghetto was now to be known as Josefov, the fifth district of Prague (Castle, Lesser Town, Old Town and New Town were the other four districts). It was a double-edged sword. On the one hand district status meant more money, more importance but it also meant freedom of movement. For the first time since 1439 Jewish people could live outside of the district. Many moved away so the area largely fell into disrepair.
A discussion on a proposed “Sanitation Law” in 1881 would finally grow into a redevelopment plan signed into law in 1893 and would spell the end of the recognisable Prague Jewish Quarter. This city redevelopment initiative would eventually destroy every building in Josefov with the exception of the Old Jewish Cemetery (including the Pinkas Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall and Klausen Synagogue), the Old New Synagogue, the Jewish Town Hall (includes the High Synagogue) and the Spanish Synagogue. The only place where you can actually see what the old Prague Jewish Quarter used to look like is Langweils Model which shows it between 1826 and 1834.
Present Day Prague Jewish Quarter
Josefov still exists as an area and anybody with an understanding of the history and architecture of the area will point out where are the boundaries. Street signs give you some clues i.e. the same street can have “Josefov” on one side and “Stare Město” on the other to show it was once a street with the Prague Jewish Quarter on one side and the Old Town on the other. Since 1993 the Jewish sites have increased in popularity with record-breaking tourist attraction visitor numbers rising consecutively over the last 10 years so during the peak tourist season there may be a control on the flow of people into the smaller synagogues like the Old/New to prevent overcrowding.